Hold on to those quick reactions about Cliff Lee being a modern-day martyr for leaving millions on the table. In fact, what Lee "sacrificed" was, on a percentage basis, more or less than what Greg Maddux turned down from the Yankees in 1992.
The Phillies are guaranteeing Lee $120 million over five years, with the chance to earn another $15 million. The Rangers' guarantee was $138 million over six, though a source said it included many deferrals that would have limited its present-day value to something less than $138 million.
So Lee, on paper, took 13 percent less to sign with Philadelphia. In 1992, Maddux took 18 percent less to sign with Atlanta instead of New York ($28 million over five years instead of $34 million). How did that work out? Not bad. Maddux went 89-33 with a 2.13 ERA, three Cy Young Awards and a World Series title in the next five years.
(The Yankees offered $132 million for six years, though Lee could have picked up his seventh year option for $16 million. Lee's Philadelphia deal is a Maddux-like 19 percent discount from the $148 million total in the New York package, though Lee could earn virtually that much if his option year vests with the Phillies.)
In the cases of both Maddux and Lee, the lesser value was the better deal because the gap wasn't big enough to offset preference for lifestyle (the Lees loved Philadelphia in their time there in 2009) and - this is an important factor for free agent pitchers - pitching in the National League.
Both Maddux and Lee profile as pitchers with command but not premium velocity. As they age - and Lee turns 33 next year -- and lose velocity -- the NL is a much more forgiving league than the AL.
Roy Halladay is a great pitcher, but when he went to the NL at age 33, he posted the best strikeout-to-walk rate of his career and his best strikeout rate of any season in which he threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Lee made only 12 starts in the NL, in 2009, but in that small sample he posted the best strikeout rate of his career.
So in Philadelphia, Lee gets a place his family is familiar with, the chance to pitch in a historically great rotation, the clearest shot at getting to the World Series, and a league that will do more for his statistics and his legacy as he ages. Add it all up, and it's well worth a 13 to 19 percent discount. Not so surprising after all.
The Phillies' Fab Four haven't gone one time through the rotation yet, but there's already reason to begin speculating about their place in history as far as great rotations. Here's my take: it's the rotation with the best pure stuff and proven track record since the 1966 Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton and Claude Osteen. (The '66 Dodgers won the pennant but lost the World Series to Baltimore.)
Here's why. Here are the top strikeout-to-walk rates in 2010 among all major league pitchers with at least 200 innings:
That's four of the eight best starters in all of baseball according to strikeout-to-walk rate now on the same staff. Amazing.
In 1966, Koufax, Sutton and Drysdale finished 4-5-6 in strikeout-to-walk rate and Osteen was 29th.
I wrote last year when the Phillies got Halladay that they were becoming the NL version of the Yankees and Red Sox, an organization designed to run annually at peak capacity, with nightly sellouts and huge TV ratings. What now?
The Phillies are the pre-eminent example of how to grow market resources. They implemented a plan, beginning with a new ballpark and refocused player development, that has lifted them from middle-market mediocrity to a powerhouse. In four years the payroll has jumped from $89 million to about $160 million-plus. They went from being the Rockies or Astros into becoming the Red Sox.
Lee is just the next step. But what he does is to raise the bar for the entire National League. The Yankees and Red Sox have raised all boats in the AL, particularly among the Twins, Angels, Tigers and White Sox.
The NL always had some breathing room as long as the Yankees and Red Sox were in the other league and its two teams with the most resources, the Cubs and Mets, were poorly run. Philadelphia, with money, intellect and ambition, has changed the calculus of the entire league. Teams such as the Giants, Braves, Cardinals and Dodgers better understand that it's not enough just to be good for the next two or three seasons. You better plan on being great to get through Philadelphia.
Shortstop Eduardo Nunez just became the most expensive prospect in baseball. It has nothing to do with his signing bonus. Yankees GM Brian Cashman was willing to trade catching prospect Jesus Montero in a package to get Cliff Lee from Seattle in July. But when the Mariners asked that either Nunez or pitching prospect Ivan Nova be included in the deal instead of injured infielder David Adams, Cashman said no.
"Now we're being asked to give a future middle-of-the-lineup bat [Montero] and either a future starting shortstop or a potential high-end starter . . ." Cashman told ESPNNewYork.com in October. He said it would have been "probably the most expensive deal I've ever done." Maybe the Mariners still strike a deal with Texas for Justin Smoak. But when the Yankees said no on Nunez, they lost any shot at Lee. The Yankees, with a shallow rotation, probably lost the pennant by not getting Lee, who beat them in the ALCS, and probably lost their best chance at signing Lee as a free agent.
Philadelphia had the edge over New York on Lee because he had pitched there and his family liked it. What if Lee had become a Yankee and pitched them to the World Series? Don't you think the Yankees would have shown him and his family the best of New York and provided him with a greater comfort level about remaining a Yankee?
Just how important is Nunez anyway? The guy has little power, will play at 24 years old next year and has a career minor-league on-base percentage of .318. And yet it gets back to Derek Jeter and how the Yankees feel about him.
When the Yankees were negotiating hard with Jeter, one of their leaks was to say Nunez was their fallback option if Jeter ever left. (Jeter wasn't leaving.) More than that, though, Nunez is their leverage for moving Jeter off of shortstop, perhaps as early as 2012 after Jorge Posada is done as the DH. You can't move Jeter unless you have someone else to take over. There's only one problem with that security; most executives don't think much of Nunez. One executive said if you wanted that kind of insurance against Jeter, "sign [Cesar] Izturis for a million bucks."